Pretentious Language Can Only Hurt You

Now here’s a headline to catch the eye: “Is Your Writing Driving Away Clients?

Ernest Nicastro’s RainToday article about the dangers of “corporatese” isn’t really news to anyone who’s ever played Buzzword Bingo, but it’s a good reminder that the last thing you want to sound is more corporate.

There are, in fact, people who say things like “leverages a proprietary framework” every day, people who can’t just use things but have to “utilize” them. If you spend too much time with those people, you might forget that to most people, those words are completely meaningless.

Nicastro recommends using some of the tools built into Microsoft Word to help you eschew obfuscation.

Long ago, there used to be a tool called Bullfighter, a plugin for Word that specifically targeted business jargon. The most recent version is designed to work for Windows XP, so might not work with more recent operating systems and versions of Word, but there’s a hilarious “Mystery Matador” online option. I tried pasting in part of the sample text from Nicastro’s article:

“In other words, sir, Leader Coaching’s services meet the expectations of business leaders who recognize the value of purposeful investments in human capital—often beginning with themselves—as a means of preparing and aligning people and systems in pursuit of growth.”

Bullfighter’s analysis was as follows:

bullfighter analysis

Flesch Diagnosis: You like to hear yourself write. Despairing of the thought of bringing a sentence to a close with something as demeaningly ordinary as a simple period, you shower readers with gratuitous, interminable and often weighty if not impossibly labyrinthine prose. Meaning lingers, albeit awash in a thick tide of metaphor and exposition that threatens to drown the writer’s message. Seek help.

In a comment on Nicastro’s article, Gail Ludewig pointed to HubSpot’s Gobbledygook Grader, built with help from David Meerman Scott. This is a less snarky version of the Bullfighter. While it pegged the reading level necessary to comprehend this 38-word sentence as “graduate,” it didn’t dismiss any of the words as gobbledygook.

gobbledygook grader result

Taken separately, each of the words in that description of Leader Coaching’s services is fairly simple, but the cumulative effect is to make the reader wonder “And what’s that when it’s at home?”

Anyone you actually want to work with is smart enough to recognize corporatese as “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Or, as the authors of Why Business People Speak Like Idiots (Amazon Associates link) would put it, bull. They suspect that if you have to use words like that, you don’t have products or services worth talking about.

And they’re probably right, too.

George Morrisey’s Tips for Budding Authors

George Morrisey, a management consultant, professional speaker, and the author or co-author of 19 books, posted the following tips to the October 2nd edition of SpeakerNet News. I have re-printed them here with his permission.

My books have been far and away my most important marketing tool over my 38 years in the speaking business. However, the role of books in the marketplace today is radically different from when I started. With that in mind, let me offer some tips for you to consider as you approach the place of books in your speaking career.

  • Unless you write a best-selling sex book, the likelihood of your being able to generate significant revenue from books is very low. My best year of royalties was about $35,000.
  • Your main reason for having a published book is to position yourself as an expert in your field.
  • However, what is different today is that a book can become a foundation for a spin-off of 15–20 other products/services that can produce significant revenue. These include such things as consulting, facilitation, workbooks, assessment instruments, webcasts, recorded presentations that can be downloaded, subscriptions to a variety of ongoing services, ebooks, and online training, just to mention a few. You are limited only by your own imagination.
  • Lengthy books of several hundred pages are history. Most best-selling business books today are under 100 pages in length that include lots of pictorial and graphic illustrations.
  • Content is still vitally important but it does not need to be beaten to death. Whether we like it or not, there are very few books today that are read cover to cover.
  • Remember, however, that YOU get better as you grow in your speaking profession but the books and other publications you have already published do NOT get better. Whatever you publish needs to be something you will still be proud of 10 years later.
  • Determine if you want to self-publish or work with a commercial publisher. My preference is to go with a commercial publisher for the primary book unless you are willing and able to invest a lot of time, energy and money in promoting it. Self-published books will rarely, if ever, be found in bookstores. Spin-off products are perfect for self-publication and should be looked on as items that can be easily updated or created anew and brought to market quickly.
  • For commercial publishing, my preference is going with a medium-size publisher rather than with one of the giants. Medium-size publishers are likely to provide more personalized treatment and key decision makers are more accessible. You will probably get little or no advance from them but a greater willingness to establish a specific promotional budget. With large publishers, your book is one of several hundred to several thousand titles they will offer in a year. Unless you are a celebrity or a REAL best-selling author, they are likely to offer it to the market and, if it doesn’t take off in the first few weeks, they will catalog it and forget it. Less than half of all commercially-published books recover their initial costs, much less make a profit for the publisher.
  • Regardless of what the publisher may suggest, every clause in their “standard” contract is negotiable. A few things to keep in mind:
    1. You should reserve the right to publication, without the publisher’s permission, in any media that they do not provide.
    2. Insist on being a part of the final decision regarding title, cover, and jacket copy.
    3. Be certain you have the right to purchase the books at bulk prices and that you may sell the books yourself.
  • Set a goal for yourself for when you will schedule time for writing, and stick to it.

What’s the Difference Between a Copywriter and a Content Writer?

Asked by Jordan Thompson on LinkedIn.

Copywriters get paid more. 😉 Seriously, the term “copywriter” is older, and it refers primarily to people who write advertising and marketing copy. “Content” has become the catch-all term for material (not always text) that gets published on websites, and its purpose might or might not be to sell something. Blog posts are “content.” You might hire a “content writer” to write blog posts for you, but not a copywriter. (And me, I’d hire a blogger.) And you might not want to hire an all-purpose “content writer” to create a sales letter for you, either.

Writing advertising copy is a specific skill. So is technical writing. So is journalism. Very few people are equally good at all types of writing, so even though it can be convenient to lump all online writing under the heading “content,” it’s not very useful if you have a specific job for which you need to hire a writer.

Case Study: Who Are You Writing For, Again?

On the morning of Friday the thirteenth, I got a call from a client saying “Drop everything—we need copy for two sales brochures by Monday.”

If I don’t have an unbreakable commitment (like the BAIPA conference I’m recording on Saturday), I’m perfectly happy to take calls like this, because it means I can add a drop-everything-and-work-all-weekend surcharge.

So after an interview with the sales team that would be using the brochures, I got to work on the copy, first for the enterprise product and then for the family product. We went through some revisions based on input from the team, tracked down some statistics, and made some suggestions about the layout and images, though I found to my startlement that the designer was working entirely in Photoshop, which is an extremely clumsy tool for handling text.

The client loved it and I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, hence my desire to show it off to all and sundry.

Enterprise-front family-pack-front

But as gratifying as it is to have people tell me how well I write, it’s much more useful when people point out the areas that need improvement. And my colleague Baylan Megino of White Light Associates pointed out something very important about these two documents.

They have too much text to work as companion brochures for use during a salesperson’s call. A better approach would be to condense the text into bullet points and leave room to take notes, so the prospect could write down his or her own most critical data.

What these documents really amount to is a script for the sales force. In this situation, that’s a valuable thing to have, because the sales team comes from outside the company and is brand new. But it would probably be a good idea to go back and revise both these documents after further consultation with a few people who didn’t spend all weekend immersed in producing them. (Not to mention getting print-resolution graphics instead of images from the web.)

Now to actually tell my client that part!

Start Listening to the Publishing Insiders

I’ve been subscribed to Penny Sansevieri’s “Book Marketing Expert” e-zine for some time now, but for some reason I only recently discovered her new “Publishing Insiders” show on BlogTalkRadio. It’s well worth listening to if you’re at all interested in the world of publishing.

A note about the BlogTalkRadio website: when you go to the show’s web page, the latest episode starts playing automatically. I personally find this more than slightly irritating, but if you grab the feed for your podcatcher, you don’t actually have to visit the website again.

Whether you want to know about Booklocker’s suit against Amazon or how to get your book reviewed, you can find out by listening to this show, which also introduces you to some lesser-known publishers who want to hear from first-time authors.

How Do You Write Your Presentations?

Werner Beckman asked this question on LinkedIn on May 29, 2008.

I usually outline and arrange my presentations using Mind Manager from MindJet. That lets me get the ideas in order and collect the links, and also makes a fine online handout if you export it to HTML.

It can export into PowerPoint, as well, but since I usually use slides primarily for illustrations, with occasional quotes and video or audio clips, I normally create the slideshow from scratch. (I’ve heard good things about Apple’s Keynote, but I’m a Windows user, so I’ve never tried it.)

I do think it’s worth distinguishing writing the presentation from delivering the presentation. Presentation software is just an electronic version of the old-fashioned slide projector, and no one who used film slides ever wrote their presentation with a slide carousel. And it was a little more obvious, back then, that putting tons of text onto a slide was a bad idea. (It was also not easy to photograph the printout in order to turn it into a slide.)

Your presentation is not the same thing as your notes. The presentation is a live whole including your delivery, the audience, audio-visual aids, and also the text or notes you’re working from.

In many cases, a completely scripted presentation is dull—and doesn’t equip you for dealing with unexpected occurrences like total equipment failure or an audience that turns out to know either more or less than you’d anticipated. You should always be prepared to give your presentation without the computer, without the screen, without the speakers. The slide show is an aid; it can make things much easier and better for the audience. But the presentation is you and your knowledge.

What’s the Hardest Part About Editing and Rewriting Content?

That question comes from Jacob Bear on LinkedIn:

What’s the hardest part about editing and rewriting content?

As a copywriter, I get asked a lot to rewrite web pages, press releases, direct mail and other content. I try to avoid doing this (creating original copy is a lot more fun and more lucrative), so I’d like to post a series of online video tutorials to walk people through the process.

I’m trying to get a sense of the biggest writing challenges, so I can address them in the videos.

Actually, the thing that’s really hardest for me is writing what copyeditors call “queries” rather than just fixing problems. But that wasn’t the kind of editing Jacob was talking about, so I said this instead:

Editing other people’s content is actually fairly easy; the challenge is to preserve their “voice” if the writing is informal/personal. Editing your own material is harder because you’re close to it. It’s best to take a break from it, wait a few days, do something to get it out of your head so that you can look at it with fresh eyes. You could ask a friend or family member to read it and tell you whether there’s anything confusing.

One successful author I know recommends doing all your editing on hard copy: print it out, take it and your red pen away from the computer, sit down, and write in the edits and comments, without changing anything yet. Then go back and make the changes at the computer.

Or, of course, you could just refer clients who want editing rather than original work to someone who’s happy doing rewrites.

And, incidentally, I charge the same amount whether I’m writing new content or editing. You may find that raising your rates for editing a) makes you more willing to do it and b) reduces the frequency with which you get asked to do it.

There were a lot of good answers posted. It’s worth going over to LinkedIn and reading all of them.

Giving Wow to Obscurity

Here’s a great LinkedIn question that Will Conley posed on February 21, 2008:

What are some effective ways to communicate a web development company’s complex, obscure abilities in a way that is accessible—without sacrificing the wow-factor?

You can substitute the name of almost any industry for “web development company” without changing the meaning of the question, because if you get down to the details of the processes involved, almost anything is obscure and confusing to outsiders. And probably not all that interesting, either. That could be why every marketing coach I’ve ever met warns you not to talk about the process when people ask what you do.

But here’s what I actually said:

There won’t be a wow factor for most people if you can’t describe what you do in plain English. Showing it may also help—before and after shots of websites you’ve revamped, or your widgets in action.

Perhaps sit down with someone who isn’t in your industry, show your stuff, and ask him or her to describe the bits that s/he found most impressive. Remember to ask how these services make the client’s life easier and benefit the client’s business.

That’s what I used to do when interviewing members of the IT department at a client’s company for the newsletter I used to write for the rest of the employees to read. I knew the readers didn’t care about the details of hardware and software. They cared about how the changes were going to affect them.

And even the geekiest prospects only care about a product’s features or a consultant’s skills because of the results they achieve. That’s where you find the wow.

Can You Really Write a Book in 3 Months?

Yes! And no.

Since I offer visitors to my website the prospect of a book in 3-6 months, I thought I should address the questions of when, whether, and how it’s possible to produce a full-length book so quickly.

At the recent BACN Publishing Panel, Dr. Bette Daoust said that it takes her 32 hours to write a book. You could hear the gasps of astonishment from the audience. She quickly qualified the statement by pointing out three things:

  1. That time is only for writing, not for research or editing. The research (gathering of relevant articles) may take months, not counting the years of experience that create the author’s expertise.
  2. It takes 32 hours to write the first draft. Few writers actually want their first drafts published.
  3. As the author of 150 books, Dr. Daoust is a practiced writer; first-time authors can expect to spend three times that on their first draft, even if they have all their ducks in a row.

When I was a young, energetic graduate student, I researched and wrote a 300,000 word quasi-historical fantasy adventure novel during our four-month summer break. That’s several times as long as any business book. (In fact, 300,000 words is really too long to be one novel; I decided a few years later, when I got nowhere with publishers, to divide it into two books and add a couple of chapters to the shorter section, but haven’t gotten around to it yet.)

Even though I’m not young and energetic anymore, generating reams of text is not a problem—as long as I know in advance what I want to say.

Start by Proposing

That’s where the research comes in. Whether you’re writing your own book or someone else’s, you have to gather a lot of source material before starting to write. You also have to go through the proposal process, to find out who the book’s intended market is, what the author’s goal for the book is, which books are comparable, etc and so on. I advise even authors who know from the beginning that they’re going to self-publish to write book proposals, because by the time you’ve done all that preparation, actually writing the book is almost an afterthought.

It can take longer to create a good proposal, with its marketing plan, hook, handle, outline, and sample chapters, than it does to write the rest of the book. Again, it depends on how well-prepared you are. Patricia Fry, author of How to Write a Successful Book Proposal in 8 Days or Less, explains the value of book proposals on WBJB Radio and Authors Access.

Source Material

Part of preparing to write—and thus being able to write quickly—is getting your source material together. You might collect relevant magazine articles and web pages over the course of a few months. Make sure you have them where you can get to them, and that you go over them to decide where you want to include them. You should also collect any short articles you’ve published that you want to include or expand on. And if you have illustrations or figures of any kind already picked out, you’ll need to get those together, as well.

If you have recordings of yourself giving presentations and leading workshops, get them transcribed. If you don’t have them, start making them. They’ll save you from reinventing the wheel. You can get a digital recorder for less than $100; for a little more, you can get one that comes bundled with voice-to-text software. (This technology is much better than it used to be, but you’ll still need a human to go over and correct it.) If you want, you can produce your entire first draft by talking rather than writing.

If you’re working with a ghostwriter, s/he will probably record interviews with you, as well as making use of any recordings or transcriptions you already have. It can be useful to hear the original audio as well as having the text to work with, but you’ll almost certainly lose time and money if you ask your ghostwriter to do the transcription. There are specialized services that will do it faster and cheaper if you don’t want to go the software route.

If, instead of planning for a few years to write before you sit down at your keyboard, you get struck by a mental lightning bolt one day and conclude that you need a book now, you can condense your research and preparation period. It may mean some long days at the library and on the Internet, not to mention in front of the microphone, either presenting to an audience or getting interviewed by a writer, but you should be able to manage the research inside a month if you can take time off from your regular business to do so.

Time Off

One reason many authors decide they really don’t need a book in 3 months, or even 6, is the fact that they have businesses to run, or day jobs, which mean they can’t devote long hours to writing. Of course, that’s also one reason to hire a ghostwriter, but as long as you want it to be your book, you have to put time in on it. So you might take a couple of weeks off to fill in the gaps in your research and to do interviews, then hand your source material to the writer.

After that, you can concentrate on your work for the next month while s/he writes the first draft. Then you’ll need at least another week or two off in order to make revisions, unless you don?t require sleep. And so on through as many revisions as the book requires (at least one more).

So that’s at least two months. Once you think of the book as “finished,” you’ll need to give the manuscript, preferably in hard copy, to someone who’s never seen it before. This can be a professional proofreader, or just a friend with an eagle eye and a handy red pen. You’ll be amazed at how many typos and other small errors you, your writer, and the spelling checker missed.

Once you fix those last problems (and the ghostwriter, or even your assistant, can on that part for you), you can turn the book over to the publisher, designer,or book packager. If you’re self-publishing, either via Print on Demand or through a more traditional printer, you need to have someone do the layout and typesetting. It’s best to hire someone who is experienced with book design—both the principles and the software—rather than an all-purpose graphic designer. If you’re working with a traditional publisher, they’ll take care of this part for you. (I can recommend a book designer, if you’re looking for one.)

A Real-Life Example

It took me 60 hours to do the first draft of a client’s book, using her blog posts as raw material; that would be just about exactly a month for me if I were working on it “full time.” But I wasn�t working on it full time, and neither was she. She actually started writing the blog in August of 2005 and concluding in October of 2006. Writing the blog posts took her roughly 1-2 hours apiece.

I started collecting and organizing the blog posts at the end of 2005 and finished the first draft in June of 2007. A lot of what both of us did during that process was eliminate duplication. She’d made several points in more than one blog post, and we needed to consolidate all that material. If she’d written all of them at once, it would have been easier for her to remember what she’d already covered—but impossible for her to do any work for her clients.

She then put in 6 hours a day reviewing and revising that first draft, and sent it back to me on July 8th, 2007. It took only until July 15th (less than 12 hours of actual billed time) for me to read over the second draft, make corrections, and send back the third draft.

Now the publisher, who is also acting as proofreader, is asking for a number of changes in the details, so it may be a few more weeks before the book goes to press. (When it does, I’ll be sure to announce it here so that you can buy it.)

The Bottom Line

My total time on this project, including some research, was 78 hours. My client’s time was probably double that, or more. (Since she wasn’t billing it out, she didn’t track it.) Spread over the course of 18 months, it was a manageable task and a manageable expense. The book, at 110,000 words, is on the longer side; you can get away with half that for a business book, if you can say what you need to say.

If we hadn’t taken breaks in between working on the book, we might have spent fewer total hours on it due to the momentum of staying immersed in the material.

Nevertheless, 78 hours is a fairly quick job. My client saved herself money by investing so much time on the project herself. A typical ghostwriting project, which involves quite a lot of interviewing and research time as well as the writing and revising, can easily take 200 hours. Any collection of source material is going to need consolidating. Writing someone else’s book can be more time-consuming than writing your own, and sometimes revising a client’s first draft also takes longer than just writing it yourself.

But if I do the math on 200 hours, that’s still only 4 months, beginning to end, if I work on that book to the exclusion of everything else. And my client might need one week off each of those months to devote to the book, and another couple of weeks after my job is done to handle issues of publishing and printing.

Marketing time, of course, is something else entirely. But as the person whose name is on the book, you’re the one who has to do most of the marketing.

Writing and Publishing for Consultants Recording

The Writing and Publishing for Consultants panel at the July meeting of the Bay Area Consultants Network was a great success. You can download the handout with links to publishing resources from the BACN website.

Here is the list of questions addressed by panelists Patricia Coate, Dr. Bette Daoust, and Karen Pierce Gonzalez (with a few interjections from moderator Sallie Goetsch (Yours Truly), and some help from the audience):

  • Why publish at all? What’s in it for consultants?
  • What’s the most important thing consultants need to know about publishing?
  • What are the different options for publishing a book and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
  • Traditional (large) publisher
  • Self-Publishing
  • Print on Demand (POD)
    • How much should I plan on spending on…
      • Writing & Editing
      • Design/Layout/Printing
      • Marketing
    • What kind of help can I get with writing and publishing a book?
      • Help with writing
      • Editing, proofreading, formatting
      • Marketing and selling
    • How do you get your articles published in print magazines and trade journals?
    • What’s the best way to write and publish articles online for lead generation?
    • How do you create and use white papers?
    • How much can you re-use your material?
    • How do you track article placement?
    • Where do I find interesting, relevant topics to write about? Does my material have to be original?

We recorded the entire panel, and you can click to play below or download the MP3 file to put on your portable media player. The recording is just over an hour long—not nearly time enough!